Monday, May 24, 2010

Disadvantages to knowing your students well

Well, there's Bias.

When students are no longer anonymous to you- just numbers- you have to watch out for bias.

Students are relatively consistent with the level of their work throughout the semester. The problem lies when I realize that such-and-such is a B student then I unconsciously grade to a B. I become biased that such-and-such is a B student and then it becomes self-perpetuating.

As hard as I try to fight bias, it is always lurking. I guess I could get credit for acknowledging that I have biases and doing everything I know how to prevent them. But they are still there.

Other areas of bias I recognize
1. Cheating- I'm not sure if this is really a BAD bias, but once a student gets caught in my class for cheating, they will be scrutinized constantly.

2. Rude behavior in class- If a student texts constantly during lecture, or some other obnoxious behavior, they seem to get put into the "disengaged" category.

3. My general feeling of "got it". If a student does poorly in class, or more importantly, just CAN.NOT seem to follow directions repeatedly to save their life, I write them off as someone who's not going to make it.

4. Spelling- if you can't spell (especially in spell-check-able word processor documents!) it creates an overall impression that you aren't careful or uninterested in doing well.

5. You mess up my title repeatedly. More here.

Now, some of these may make a grain sense. But what I really want to avoid is preventing each student from having a clean slate at the beginning of each assignment, or worse, grading their assignment subjectively up or down according to my unconscious opinion of them.

For example, on an 15-point essay question, if given the same answer from a student who I thought was a pretty good student vs. a student who texts in class and doesn't seem to pay attention or follow directions, I could imagine (there's no way to test this) that I could give the texting student a point less. That's simply not fair.

The reverse is also true. If a student shows up in my office weekly, and I really want them to succeed, for the same answer I could imagine giving the student I was "rooting for" a point more for the same answer as a student who I never saw outside of lecture periods. Also not fair.

I'm human, and recognize that there is no way to completely eliminate bias in grading. It's true life is not fair. But I really want to be AS "JUST" AS POSSIBLE in the classroom.

I know the students well. By midterms at the latest, I know that names of every one of my students. I also have probably formed my biases by then, too.

Ways I have figured out so far to combat bias

1. Forced Anonymity. I give essays on tests. Because of this subjective part, I design the test such that I can't see the student's name before I grade the whole exam. This works pretty well. However, at the end of a two-semester course I can recognize some unusual handwriting. I try to cover names when grading worksheets or papers with the name on the front, but this is not 100% successful.

2. One-size-fits all- no exceptions. For example, if you miss a quiz, there are no make-ups. I don't care if its excused or not. You can make up the quiz by the longer alternative assignment, like everyone- no exceptions. This prevents me from: a. listening to some pretty crazy excuses and b. treating people I imagine as being less responsible with less mercy than other students. It's rigid, but it seems fairer.

3. My natural forgetfulness. Luckily for most students I don't walk around with their grade in my head. So if they bombed the last exam, I probably don't remember that. If I see them in the hall, I will greet them just like I did before they bombed my test. This really only pertains to the conscious part of the equation, not really eliminating many unconscious biases.

4. Your suggestion here.


  1. Like the quiz make up policy. Rigidity prevents having to put up with BS and shows no favoritism. I too used to cover up names when grading but you can always recognize the particular handwriting of your usual suspects.

  2. Very nice post! Very true.
    As with all bias, just the fact you are aware of it and trying to take countermeasures is more than most people do.

    I have also noticed that, despite trying to be objective, I end up having likes and dislikes in my students. As I grade, I first do the absolute grading, and then a relative comparison to similar scores to see if really I am skewed one way or another.

    And I grade based on a formula (depends on course), no exception: I let them know at the beginning of the semester how many % for HW, how many for each exam, how many a paper or labs if any) and I don't deviate from that.

    I am also fairly inflexible in scheduling make up exams, and let them know if in advance. That probably doesn't make me liked, but it makes things easier for everyone.

  3. Perhaps a stupid/obvious suggestion, but I ask students to put their names on the back of all exams. That way, I don't see them unless I peek (which I try to avoid).

  4. Tired, yes- that's what I do. When I said "design the test" what I mean is "paginate so it saves paper but still obscures the name from the subjective part of the exam". Thanks!

  5. Rubrics. I assign a specific point value to each portion of the essay answer that I'm expecting - even for very short answers. So, if I ask a question and expect them to mention three things, each one of those three things will be worth a specific number of points. As I go through and award points, I then add them up at the end. I'll often find myself thinking that a specific essay should have gotten more (or less) points. I'll review using the rubric, but more often than not, the grade they end up with is right.

  6. I design my tests so the there is some completely objective portion on the front page where their name is (T/F or multiple choice) and then the essays are towards the back. Those classes are large enough that I am very unlikely to pick up on anyone's handwriting. In smaller classes with take-home exams I instruct them to have their name only on a cover page, which a colleague removes for me, and then numbers each exam. After I've finished grading I get the cover sheets back and then match them up to figure out who wrote each exam. It surprises me sometimes! Now, if it's a class where they are writing term papers and I've seen multiple drafts, well... none of these tricks work, though a rubric might help.

    I think just by explicitly considering whether you are allowing any bias to creep in to your grading means that you are probably doing a pretty good job of combating it.